NHL Officiating: A Time For Change


It is widely observed that of the major sports in America, NHL hockey features the worst officiating. Some lay the blame for hockey’s lack of fan interest compared to baseball, football, or basketball on missed, blown, and irreconcilable calls made on the ice.
It must first be stated that hockey is perhaps the most difficult sport to officiate. The referees and linesmen must keep up with the unmatched speed of the players the entire game, often eclipsing thirty miles an hour. Officials have to be in supreme shape and must make instant breakneck speed calls, staying in position, without the benefit of slow motion or arm chair refereeing. Contrast this with the motionless, grazing that a baseball umpire can enjoy if his assignment is not home plate, or a pitcher is tossing a hitless gem.

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Yet, it is with slow motion replays from all possible camera angles that we largely come to suspect the judgment of calls made in hockey. This is for most of us who are relegated to watching the game at home in High definition, a far cheaper venue than even the cheapest arena seats. The league does use replay to determine close calls on the goal line, but only if that is what is in question, or the height of the stick, or how the blade of the skate is used, in scoring. No replay is currently possible for goalie interference, heads snapping back when no stick has made contact, for when contact is made with a player’s noggin and no call has been made, the sneaky elbow or trip, or a player pulling up prior to a hit from behind eliciting an Oscar worthy reaction crumbling helplessly to the ice, staying down waiting for the call.

In addition to goals being reviewed by officials in Toronto, the league also increased the number of referees on the ice from one to two, totaling four officials on the ice with the two linesmen. This was supposed to address the suspicions that hockey was poorly refereed and by doing so it was kind of an admission of guilt. Let’s also add that if a “dirty” play was missed, it then likely led to retaliation or goonery; the players became the policemen or enforcers. Unfortunately, the league has merely doubled the chances of a poor call, and the ice is now more cluttered. I have lost count of how many instances the refs or linesmen have gotten in the way, particularly anywhere along the boards. With more blown goals and crowding the ice, officials are affecting the play adversely more than ever.

So what to do? Since a remote location such as Toronto can be the site of official rulings, why not somewhere in the actual arena of play? Let’s take the second ref off the ice and place him (or her) in a special box above the game with the TV feeds. This is the view that broadcasters have throughout the league night after night as they impugn the referees, of course, with a home town slant. The “SKY REF” can make calls as near to instantly as the ref on the ice. A system can be set up whereby the sky official alerts the on ice ref of a call, or a call to reverse. This can be done by headset and would then minimize whether or not fans know that the on ice official is being questioned. This would also minimize how he gets severely questioned as it now stands. A light system near the scorer’s table could also be used signaling the on ice ref. No waiting for Toronto is necessary, and the in house refs can instantly review virtually everything to get it right.

We have endured the love-hate relationship with the old fashioned approach to refereeing: let them miss a few calls; this will “even out” over time. With technology informing much of our lives these days, I believe it is time to jettison the quant romantic notion that the refs can be pretty darn good and generally get it right. When the Stanley Cup finals are on the line, and say the Rangers’ goalie, Henrik Lundqvist gets bumped in the crease, is scored on as a result and no call is made, something has to give. The answer is the ref in the sky with the power we all have had in our living rooms: instant slow motion hindsight.